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Family of Peter Cukor Files Claim Against City of Berkeley

By Julia Cheever (BCN)
Wednesday June 20, 2012 - 10:53:00 PM

In a prelude to a possible wrongful death lawsuit, the widow and two sons of a Berkeley homeowner who was killed by an allegedly mentally ill intruder in February filed a claim against the city of Berkeley today. 

The administrative claim by the family of Peter Cukor, 67, seeks unspecified financial compensation for alleged wrongful death and emotional distress. 

The city has 45 days to respond to the claim. If it rejects the claim, the family will then have six months to file an Alameda County Superior Court lawsuit. 

California law requires that people seeking to sue a state or local government entity must first file a claim.  

The claim alleges police dispatchers were grossly negligent in failing to assign an emergency priority when Cukor called at about 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 18 to ask for an officer to respond to a suspicious intruder who was acting strangely.  

It also alleges a dispatcher falsely promised that an officer would arrive soon at the home shared by Cukor and his wife, Andrea, on Park Gate Road near Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills. 

"The Cukors were lulled to a false sense of security and did not take necessary action to protect themselves" because they believed an officer was on the way, according to the claim.  

Instead, "the police dispatcher did not request any assistance on behalf of the Cukors from the police officers on duty. When a police officer volunteered to respond to the emergency, the police dispatcher told the officer do not go," the claim alleges. 

Several minutes later, according to the claim, the Cukors saw the intruder leave their property, and a few minutes after that, Peter Cukor walked to the bottom of the driveway to help the expected officer find it. 

At 9:01 p.m., as his wife watched from an upstairs window, Cukor was hit on the head by the stranger with a ceramic flowerpot. Cukor, who owned a transportation logistics consulting company, died at a nearby hospital. 

Daniel Dewitt, 23, of Alameda, whose parents have said he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five years ago, has been charged with murdering Cukor.  

His criminal case has been suspended by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Sandra Bean while he is treated at Napa State Hospital for mental illness. Dewitt is due back in court for a progress report July 13. 

The claim alleges the city and the Police Department were grossly negligent in failing to train and supervise emergency dispatchers properly. 

City spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said, "The claim has been received and will be reviewed," but said she could not comment further. 

The claim was filed by Andrea Cukor and the couple's adult sons, Christopher Cukor, 37, and Alexander Cukor, 34.  

Their attorney, R. Lewis Van Blois of Oakland, said, "I think the family wanted to let the public know what actually occurred. There have been a lot of inaccurate statements. 

"Most importantly," Van Blois said, "they want to see changes made in the whole system, so that police respond to emergency calls and dispatchers do not mislead people who call." 

Although a police detective suggested in a court document filed in Dewitt's case that the reason Cukor left his house was probably to seek help at a fire station across the street, the claim alleges that Cukor walked down his driveway because he thought the expected officer was having trouble finding it.  

The fire station was empty because firefighters were responding to a call.  

Van Blois said the family believes Cukor's purpose was to help police locate his driveway because the entrance was difficult to find in the dark and because he never told his wife he was going to the fire station.  

At a community forum in March, Berkeley police Chief Michael Meehan said Cukor's initial call at 8:45 p.m. was to a non-emergency number. Meehan said police had no way of knowing the intruder would attack Cukor. 

The claim alleges, however, that Cukor made that call to an area code (510) telephone number advertised on the Police Department website and in literature given to Berkeley residents as "the emergency number for immediate threats to life and property." It says he "emphatically and firmly requested an officer to come right away."  

Fifteen minutes later, Andrea Cukor called a different number, the 911 emergency number, as she watched the intruder attack her husband, and police responded to this second call. 

Both the claim and the police filing say that when Cukor encountered the intruder in the garage of his house, the intruder claimed he lived there, was looking for Zoey and was told by a psychic if he went through the front gate he would find Zoey. 

After Cukor told the intruder to leave, the stranger walked down the driveway and left the property, and Cukor made the first emergency call. A few minutes later, Cukor traversed the driveway, "expecting to meet a police officer trying to locate his home," the claim says.